Last weekend I went to San Francisco with my grandpa. Every time I go back to The Bay, I have to remind myself why I left The Bay Area five years ago. It’s like I have to justify leaving behind this whole other life I could have lived.
When I visited SF within the first two years of my leaving, I would justify my move by citing my health, my family and my relationship; I had a support system in Portland and a boyfriend. And that was wise enough.
Over time, my reasons for leaving changed; I began to reference the fact that most of my friends had been forced to move to Oakland because of the sky-rocketing rents in SF. I thought that I’d made the right decision even after my relationship broke up; gentrification had pushed all my friends out to Oakland anyway, so why should I have stayed? I would’ve ended up in Oakland anyway. And that was never my dream. But then, Oakland isn’t so bad; it’s kind of like Portland: flatter, sunnier, cheaper than SF.
The reality, especially now that I am selling real estate, is that I can’t move back to The Bay, even if I wanted to. Getting my real estate license was a conscious decision to put down roots, to stay here, probably forever.
Then, on this most recent trip to SF, I found myself doing something new: just straight-up shit-talking the city.
My grandpa didn’t help my attitude – he loves big cities. He told me he loves the crowds, the vibrancy. He told me the dumpy hotel I’d chosen for us reminded him of the seedy hotels he used to stay in when he was younger. He liked the thick carpet, he said it reminded him of how he and his drug addict friends would hide their drugs between the thick carpet and the wall. He was having a ball. He was exuberant every night that we went and saw live jazz. He cried and clapped his hands and sang along. He told me he’d prefer to move to Seattle or San Francisco if he could. Yet for every positive comment he made about San Francisco and cities in general, I had a negative one. (I made a podcast about our trip.)
On our third day there, I went to the bar with my friend Leonard and we sat outside on the crowded patio.
“Look,” I said. “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but every time I come back to San Francisco I realize how I can’t stand big cities.” I held up my fingers, ticking my complaints off one by one. “They’re dirty, expensive and crowded.”
(I thought to myself that there must be some kind of acronym for that: DEC, CED.....)
I continued, “Every time I come to San Francisco I’m always struck by the smell of human urine and human and dog poop everywhere!”
Leonard smiled, “Portland has got to be dirty like it is here.”
“No. It’s not,” I said. And it isn’t. Maybe it’s the rain, maybe it’s the culture of the inner city, regardless, Portland just isn’t as dirty as other cities. I’m afraid that Portland is changing though; more and more people keep moving here every year and the density is increasing. David wrote about the density of Amsterdam in his last update, and I am afraid that Portland will become like other big cities soon. It’s already expensive, but I’m afraid it will get crowded and dirty too.
“Yeah,” Leonard said. “I used to be freaked out by the crowds and stuff, but I got over it.”
“I’m not freaked out by it,” I said. “I just don’t like it. It’s disgusting.”
Leonard said something else, now I can’t remember what. But I remember thinking: I don’t think I’m getting my point across. The point wasn’t even me being disgusted with the filth and cost of living. It was something else.
I understand that on a practical level, as long as capitalism exists, that cities are the most efficient way for humans to live; it makes sense to pack as many people as possible into a small area, like ants in an ant nest. It’s better for the environment because it protects the countryside, and as long as you are going to live in a city, you may as well live in one as dense and connected as San Francisco and Amsterdam. I get this – dense cities are the lesser of two evils. But there is something more there. Maybe it’s that I miss the spirit of trees and dark creek ravines, hushed sunsets and calm mornings. I grew up in the country and perhaps that’s where my heart feels most at peace. Maybe that is what I couldn’t quite articulate to Leonard.
I’m not sure if I have the answer yet, but I think it has something to do with not completely identifying with cities. They don’t speak to me. They’re not living forests; they have a vibrancy, but that vibrancy is made up entirely of humans, not animals and plants. And I realized, after I got home and wrote thank you cards to my friends in SF, that what I really missed about SF was my friends. I didn’t miss the city itself.
I feel connected to Portland because I grew up in Oregon, but I realized that I will never feel connected to SF in the same way.
Nowadays I have been thinking about finding some land somewhere outside of Portland when I can afford it. I want to live in the country again, and foster some sense of spiritual connection to where I live. Unfortunately, now that I am single, I’ve been feeling isolated and lonely out in Gresham. I don’t know if it’s a good idea to move out even further to the country. Why should I move even farther away from all my loved ones?
Borrowing from the Beef Board an appropriate slogan for cities might be: Cities – they’re where the people are. I’m not sure whether I will ever reconcile these two parts of myself: the half that needs to be out in the woods and the part that wants to be around people.
This morning I got on Craiglist and looked at studios for rent in Portland. Yep, they were still totally unaffordable. I don't know what is wrong with me - it's like I can never be happy where I am. My plan now is to try and get all my friends to move out to Gresham and be my neighbors.